Villiers started, and came forward. He reached out a hand but she shook her head. “Not until you promise.”
“I cannot promise,” he told her, and she could have sworn that she saw a flash of sympathy in those cold eyes of his. “It’s no longer a matter of your honor, but that of Gryffyn’s.”
“My honor is worthless!” she cried.
He stooped down and brought her to her feet. “Your courage is not worthless, Lady Roberta.” He kept her hands for a moment. “I will apologize,” he said. “That’s the best I can do, and since I’ve never done such a thing before in my life, you see that my apology means that I put your honor at a rather higher pitch than your own valuation.”
He dropped her hands and turned away. “If you’ll forgive me, milady, we have a chess match to finish.”
An arm came around her shoulder, and Roberta felt herself pulled away.
“Mr. Cunningham!” she said dully. “I didn’t see you.”
“I often play a match during the afternoon when His Grace is in the House of Lords.” He said nothing further, and Roberta couldn’t bring herself to say anything either. So he accompanied her home in silence.
It had to be enough.
It simply…had to be enough.
Day eleven: the Beaumont/Beaumont chess match
remains in play
D awn was curling over Wimbledon Commons, making the wheels of all the carriages disappear and look as if their fat bellies were scraping the ground.
“I shall be sick,” Roberta said between clenched teeth.
“Open the carriage door,” Jemma said, not helpfully. She was crying, just a little. She hadn’t said anything, but Roberta saw her wipe away a tear, and then another. “Damon will be fine,” she said, as if to herself.
“Does he know how to fight with a sword?” Roberta whispered.
Jemma frowned at her. “Of course he does!”
Carriages and more carriages kept pulling up until there was a double row, and men pushed by their door as if they were going to see a cock fight.
“Villiers said he would apologize,” Roberta said. “He promised.” Her fists were clenched. “Should I go and remind him, Jemma?” she cried. “Should I go and see what’s happening?”
But Jemma shook her head, her eyes bleak. “You’ve done all you can. If you shame Villiers in front of all these people, there’s no saying what he might do.”
“What would shame him?” Roberta asked desperately.
“To have you intervene again. And you would shame Damon.”
“But he would live!”
“He will live,” Jemma said. But her face was icy white.
“I begged him not to go,” Roberta said. “He just laughed.”
They waited, and still fog curled in the center of the field, and nothing happened. “What is a rapier?” Roberta said, forcing the words past stiff lips. “Do you know?”
“A thin blade,” Jemma said. “It is favored by the French and considered to be agile, intelligent and supple.”
“What?” Roberta said, unable to get her mind around this cluster of adjectives. “Do you think that Damon can fight with it?”
Jemma turned her head and stared at her. “What makes you question Damon’s ability so?”
Just then two men walked onto the field and Roberta gasped. They weren’t Villiers and Damon, but the seconds. They seemed to be scuffing the grass, seeing if it was slippery with dew.
“Because,” she said, “Villiers himself told me that chess players are the finest duelists. That makes him the finest sword fighter in the kingdom. It’s not Damon’s skill I’m worried about. It’s Villiers’s that terrifies me.”
Jemma laughed, and the sound of it jarred Roberta to the bottom of her stomach. “What makes you think that Damon can’t play chess?”
“He’s quite likely the best chess player in England,” Jemma said flatly. “My father taught us both and it was his considered opinion that Damon had an edge on me. Damon finds the game boring because it doesn’t present enough of a challenge.”
Roberta swallowed. “Not enough of a challenge? Then, what?”
“Have you talked of nothing, all this time you spent in bed together?”
Roberta shook her head. “Not about the right things.”
“Bills of Exchange. He plays with them, manipulates the market. He moves on a larger chess board; he’s like my husband in that.”
“He really can fence?”
“Of course,” Jemma said irritably. “He’s fought at least four duels that I know of.”
“Did he win all four?”
“He told me last night that he had decided to strike Villiers in the right shoulder.”
“There you see the thought pattern of a master player,” Jemma said. “Philidor often called the piece with which he would check my king.”
“But were any of Damon’s previous opponents chess masters?”
There was a sigh. “No.”
To the side of the field, Damon was talking to his second. “There’s not so much fog that we can’t see,” he said impatiently. He wanted to get this over with and go back to breakfast with Roberta. He knew she was there, poor mouse, huddled in the carriage with Jemma.
The second hurried over to talk to Villiers’s second, and then rushed back.
“His Grace would like to speak to you a moment,” he said.
Damon dropped his coat onto the wet grass. He would fight in his old boots and a shirt, rolled up to the sleeves. He took one more look at his rapier, a beautiful length of steel from Toledo. He almost had an unfair advantage, using it. Still, he picked it up and strolled over to Villiers’s gaudy carriage.
The duke was stripped to a shirt. He was bending his blade, testing its spring.
“Toledo,” Damon said with pleasure. “Excellent.”
Villiers lifted those heavy eyes of his and murmured, “An even match is always best.”
Damon waited a moment but Villiers seemed to be having some trouble speaking. Finally, he said in an almost strangled voice, “I want to apologize.”
“Apologize. I should not have maligned Lady Roberta’s honor.”
Damon narrowed his eyes. “She got to you, didn’t she?”
Villiers looked up again. “What do you mean?”
“Roberta. What did she do, exactly?”
“She fell on her knees in Parsloe’s,” Villiers said flatly. “She begged me not to fight you.”
“Sounds very dramatic.” Damon loved the sound of it.
“Oh, believe me,” Villiers said. “It was. She enjoyed a wide audience.”
“Right. Now that’s out of the way, shall we start?”
Villiers glanced at him. “My apology?”
“I would have acquiesced to any demand of hers as well,” Damon said. “But the fact of it is, Villiers, we’re going to fight. Now.”
Villiers, looking up at the earl, saw him as a man with an easy smile, a man whom he had obviously never understood. A sudden thought struck him. “Do you play chess?”